On the weekend of April 14, 2017, the Yale men’s baseball team embarked on a three-day sojourn through the pits of Boston. As if it were not bad enough to be forced to remain in Cambridge from Friday to Sunday night, the Elis had to play four games, totaling nine hours and 42 minutes of baseball that weekend. Now I must admit, an awful lot of that time was spent absolutely drubbing Harvard to the tune of 21 runs in the second game — which the Bulldogs probably enjoyed. Even still, that’s a ridiculous amount of time on the diamond.
And such a weekend has not been rare for our squad in years past; in fact, it has been the norm. For obvious reasons, that was a problem — the quality of baseball suffered as a result. And waking up to get to the stadium a few hours before a morning game and not leaving until hours after the afternoon game ended meant that there actually was not a moment to do anything but play — so academic performance suffered.
That is why this year, the Ivy League changed. Previously, weekends featured four games: a seven-inning game followed by a nine-inning game on both Saturday and Sunday — 32 innings of play at minimum. This year, by contrast, Saturday features a double header, with both games comprised of nine innings, followed by a single game of nine innings at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday. That way the team plays 27 innings and gets to head home long before the sun goes down.
In some ways, these changes mirror ones that Major League Baseball has made over the past couple years. The total duration of play has been reduced. For Ivy play, this is designed to benefit the student-athletes. In the MLB, there is a different impetus, but a similar result: shortening the time spent playing baseball. For Yale, the move is worthwhile since the quality of play is improved and the players are relieved of a ridiculous time commitment. For the MLB, the new rules are designed to benefit the viewers — or so they think.
In a society in which social cache is driven by snapshot photos, rapidity is currency. As Instagram photos pile up, like a screen glitch, they push out of view the images posted before. As memories come, the flashes capturing them interrupt the flow of time. Teams advance down football fields by air. We speak on the phone with our fingers. We break the molds of traditions formed over centuries within seconds. All of this happens, for better or worse — but all to baseball’s dismay.
In a sport defined by the pitcher’s long stride to the plate, and his longer saunter up to the mound before then; in the timeouts that take place on the field without commercial pause; in the unnecessary toss around the horn after a strikeout, slowness is beauty. Baseball stands smooth as the grass in the outfield, as the curve of the diamond. Baseball is never pushed forward. It stands outside of time. It is defined by face to face interactions: of the symbiosis of pitcher and catcher, of the automatic turn of shortstop and second basemen, of the spit-laden shouts of umpire and manager. It looks backwards to traditions that never change, like Yankee Pinstripes and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” It is America’s pastime.
Or at least it was.
According to Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal and Magna Global’s 2016 study, the average age of a baseball viewer is 57. That is four years older than it was a decade before. And only 7 percent of the sport’s viewers are under 18. For reference, the average age of an NFL viewer is 50. The NHL is 49 and the NBA is 42.
So the data seem to match our perception of today’s society; and thus, it is easy to see why baseball has tried to speed up its game. They have limited those impromptu mound visits, shortened the commercial breaks where we sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” rendered an intentional walk possible without actually chucking a pitch and forced hitters to remain in the batter’s box.
But in all these efforts, are we losing our beloved sport’s essence? Is it worth shaving off minutes by adding a pitch clock, as the major league has contemplated, and the minors have tested? If it saves the game from desertion by a disinterested American populace, then maybe … just maybe it is.
But if we change the game so much that it becomes like football, determined by short spurts of action, with frenzied confusion bridging the gaps, then I do not know if I would feel the same way about baseball. If I had to worry about missing pitches when I look down at my peanuts as I crack them, or as I fish for my inevitably useless prize in a bag of Cracker Jacks, then maybe we are not saving baseball, we are just changing it.
Kevin Bendesky | firstname.lastname@example.org